Today is Independence Day. This holiday commemorates the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence is an amazing document. Luckily, it is of sufficient strength to be impervious to being waved about for crass short-term political nefariousness from the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others.
In honor of the occasion, I’d like to share a few thoughts, opinions and facts regarding the document that announced the thirteen American colonies had become independent states and how it came to be used (by some) as an instrument to denounce the concept of the separation between church and state.
The Declaration of Independence was primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, who was one member of a “Committee of Five” appointed by Congress to draft the declaration. That committee determine that Jefferson should write the first draft. That draft was written within 17 days between June 11 and June 28, 1776. After consulting with others, Jefferson produced another copy which was then presented to Congress on June 28, 1776.
The vote for independence took place on July 2, 1776. The resolution of independence was adopted with twelve affirmative votes and one abstention. (The delegates from New York were not authorized to vote for independence.) In a letter to his wife, John Adams predicted the date would become a great American holiday.
However, Congress didn’t approve the text of the Declaration until July 4, 1776, and only after making changes in the wording and deleting nearly one-fourth of the text, including a passage that was critical of the slave trade.
The second sentence has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language” and “the most potent and consequential words in American history.” (Source: Wikipedia.)
It reads: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
It’s on that word “Creator” where people like Beck and Limbaugh like to hang their hat when arguing against the separation of church and state.
One source I found argues that the word “Creator” was not found in Jefferson’s original draft but was later added to the copy finally presented to and approved by Congress.
It is also possible that the word “Creator” is ambiguous. Does that refer to the Christian “God” like some argue? Because the text also mentions “Law of Nature,” “Nature’s God,” “Supreme Judge of the world,” and “divine Providence.” (Capitalized as originally written. Source: Archives.gov.) These sorts of phrases were considered deist terminology of the day. “The Founding Fathers of the United States were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophies, and it is generally believed that many of them were deists.” (Source: Wikipedia.)
Is the word “Creator” ambiguous? This may be an area of contention for some. But I argue that another, more powerful example of this, is right there in the same sentence. All “men” are created equal. Men. The word “women” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence. (Nor does it appear in the U.S. Constitution until the 19th Amendment which was adopted in 1920.) And, of course, there was the later debate over what races were covered by the word “men”:
[T]here is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.
Abraham Lincoln, 1858
Although the Declaration of Independence is often cited as some sort of proof that the framers were desirous of a Christian nation, our legal system and laws are based on the U.S. Constitution. “[T]he Declaration of Independence is not a legal document for this nation. What this means is that it has no authority over our laws, our lawmakers, or ourselves. It cannot be cited as precedent or as being binding in a courtroom. The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to make a moral case for dissolving the legal ties between the colonies and Great Britain; once that goal was achieved, the official role of the Declaration was finished.” (Source: About.com.)
“Having served its original purpose in announcing independence, the text of the Declaration was initially ignored after the American Revolution.” (Source: Wikipedia.)
Lastly, in regards to the issue of the Declaration of Independence being used as a prop to support political opinions today, I offer this. Many claim, rightly so, that the phrase “separation of church and state” isn’t found either the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. That is correct. It isn’t. There are quick to point out that a similar phrase was used by Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists Association in 1802. In the letter, he wrote:
…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Some of the time we try to interpret the words of the framers and hope to glean their original intent. In this case, we don’t have to. Jefferson expressly references the First Amendment verbiage that we all know so well, and says exactly what the intent was supposed to be.
But that’s not my point here. The point is that those who oppose the concept of a separation of church and state are quick to point out that this was just a letter and, thus, has no bearing on the U.S. Constitution. True. The problem? These same people then don microphones and go on state and claim the the Declaration of Independence is proof of what the framers intended.
In essence, they are saying, “That letter is not a legal document for our nation.” Meanwhile, they try to slip into their oily shell game that, somehow, the Declaration of Independence is. But it isn’t. When they argue in this manner they are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They are being intellectually dishonest. If your true purpose is to glean original intent, the only fair thing to do is either consider both (and other writings from the framers) or exclude both. The most blatantly dishonest thing to do would be cherry pick which are applicable and which are not based solely on how their happen to support your chosen position.
If we were to consider both, though, I submit that the intent shown in Jefferson’s letter is more telling than the presence of the word “Creator” within the Declaration of Independence.
When the Bill of Rights came along, the First Amendment addressed the sort of thing a bit further:
First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It is interesting to note that this amendment only excluded “Congress” from making laws respecting an establishment of religion. In other words, states were still free to do so, and they did. For example, in some southern states, it was against the law for the clergy to preach from the pulpit in a way that was critical of slavery. Those that did could be jailed or even be threatened with capital punishment. (Source: Time.com.) This wasn’t changed until the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868.
I think that illustrates quite tidily the dangers of church and state becoming too entwined. Threat of capital punishment? Hell. That’s the kind of shit Henry the Eight pulled on his opponents, including his Chancellor Thomas More who supported the supremacy of the papacy and refused to take an oath declaring Henry the head of the English church. For that act of defiance, More was beheaded. Let us not forget, however, that while More was Chancellor he approved of six “heretics” being burned at the stake.
So, today, along with love of country and our independence, I also celebrate my right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the right to the religious beliefs of my choice!